Rail system faces federal funding hurdle

Now that California voters have approved $9 billion for a network of 220-mph trains, the system's sponsors are aiming at an even bigger prize -- $12 billion to $16 billion from the federal government.

The voters may not have realized it, but the bond issue they narrowly authorized Nov. 4 will cover scarcely 25 percent of the estimated $33.6 billion cost of the system's first phase, from San Francisco to Anaheim via Fresno, Bakersfield and Los Angeles.

Nevertheless, the 52.4 percent yes vote was enough to boost the spirits of high-speed rail proponents and -- in combination with the upcoming Washington power shift -- raise hopes that more money will be coming soon, perhaps even in an economic stimulus bill now under discussion.

"All of a sudden we're popular," said former state senator and Superior Court Judge Quentin Kopp, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority board of directors.

The fast trains also hold potential to breathe new life into long-struggling places such as downtown Fresno, where a high-speed rail station is planned, most likely along the Union Pacific corridor near Chukchansi Park.

If and when it is built, high-speed rail "will ultimately change our task from focusing on attracting development to accommodating development, which is a happy transition," said Marlene Murphey, executive director of the Fresno Redevelopment Agency.

But with a bankroll amounting to a fraction of what it eventually needs, the rail authority isn't ready to call its plan a sure thing yet.

Three days after the election, the authority published an update of its 8-year-old business plan. It estimated construction costs at $23.5 billion in 2008 dollars, plus $3.2 billion to $4 billion for trains and about $6.1 billion for design work, rights of way and other expenses.

Besides the $9 billion authorized by Proposition 1A and the hoped-for $12 billion to $16 billion in federal funds, the authority also is counting on $6.5 billion to $7.5 billion from pension funds and other investors, plus $2 billion to $3 billion from local governments along the route.

If it all comes together, the plan says, the authority will be ready for final design and construction in 2012, a little more than three years from now. But that's a big if.

Among its other provisions, Prop. 1A forbids any spending on construction until all funding is confirmed. As a result, just days after the state bonds were approved, the authority turned its attention to getting another big share from Washington.

"That's our singular focus now, and it will be the focus of our Dec. 3 board meeting," Kopp said.

How to secure that funding is anything but clear. To start with, California is unlikely to be the only state seeking federal help with high-speed rail.

An Amtrak reauthorization bill that President George W. Bush signed in October puts the state in competition with 10 other potential high-speed rail corridors for a pool of money currently limited to a modest $1.5 billion. The Washington-to-Boston corridor -- home to Amtrak's Acela, a sort-of-high-speed train that tops out at 150 mph -- is at the front of the line.

California is fighting for second place with nine others, including virtually all of the nation's population centers from Florida to the Pacific Northwest.

Still, the fact that California already has $9 billion authorized will help a lot, said Lynn Schenk, another authority board member and former member of Congress from San Diego: "One of the first things you have to show is that you have a state match." Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, a current San Joaquin Valley congressman and longtime high-speed rail advocate, predicts that any federal help will come in several chunks.

Besides the Amtrak bill, Costa said, funds could come from other legislation on surface transportation and climate change as well as an economic stimulus bill intended to relieve the recent credit crunch and recession.

"As difficult as this economic meltdown is, it also provides an opportunity," he said. "There is going to be an investment in our infrastructure in the next 18 months, and that bodes well for this project." Perhaps because it is so recent, and because it still isn't certain that the system actually will be built, the Prop. 1A vote has had little effect so far on efforts to revive downtown Fresno. But Murphey nevertheless says local officials are "excited about the catalytic effect" that a high-speed rail station is likely to have downtown.

"I think it's huge," she said. "For me it was the most important proposition on the ballot -- not just in this election but in many elections." One big downtown redevelopment effort, the South Stadium Project, would be a few hundred steps from the proposed Fresno high-speed rail station.

Project developer Forest City Enterprises just issued an environmental report, available at fresnorda.com, outlining plans for a first phase of 767 apartments and 60,100 square feet of ground-floor shops.

But the hurdles that remain for high-speed rail aren't just financial.

For the next two or three years, the authority will be working to finish a series of environmental reports on the project.

Soon, it also will issue contracts to begin some design work, Kopp said.

At some future date, it will begin construction on the first section of track, extending about 160 miles from Merced to Bakersfield.

The longest, flatest stretch of the proposed route, that segment is intended for use in testing trains at their maximum speed so that their use can be approved by federal regulators.

The business plan doesn't mention a completion date for the initial San Francisco-to-Anaheim phase, just a 2030 target for the entire system.

But the authority and other project advocates have pointed to 10 years from now as a goal.

Whether that ambition is attainable or not, the authority is determined to move forward quickly now that the first piece of funding has been approved.

Said Kopp: "We've got to hurry up."